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Companies that want to produce or manufacture toxic PFAS chemicals that are no longer in use are now required to notify the Environmental Protection Agency.

The new federal rule is part of an effort to screen the “forever chemicals” more rigorously, and prevent them from entering the environment, the EPA said.

The class of chemicals known as PFAS can remain in the environment — and the human bloodstream — for years.

The chemicals, widely used in consumer products, have tainted drinking water in the region, and across the U.S. for decades. They’re linked to serious health problems, including some cancers.

There are thousands of varieties of PFAS — more than 300 of which haven’t been on the market in several years. But until this week, companies could resume production of those chemicals without any formal review.

The new federal rule allows the EPA to evaluate the safety risks of any previously-used PFAS chemical a company wants to resume production of.

“For far too long, communities — particularly those with environmental justice concerns — have suffered the impacts of exposure to ‘forever chemicals,’” said Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, in a statement.

“We’re continuing to use every tool at our disposal to better protect communities across the nation from these persistent and dangerous chemicals.”

How PFAS chemicals have been used

PFAS chemicals have been widely used in consumer products such as nonstick cookware, waterproof clothing, and some food packaging, as well as in firefighting foam. Water supplies in communities located near military bases and airports have been particularly impacted, as the foam has contaminated the groundwater.

The chemicals have been linked to some cancers, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, developmental delays in children, and other health conditions. That has led to numerous lawsuits against companies that make the compounds, including DuPont and its successor companiesand 3M.

EPA’s review of toxic chemicals

In 1976, the U.S. Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act to regulate certain chemicals. However, thousands of chemicals were grandfathered in and produced without EPA review.

For 40 years, the EPA reviewed only about 20% of new chemicals, according to the agency. In 2016, the law was amended, allowing the EPA to review the safety of any new chemicals before permitting its production.

Prior to the new rule finalized this week, companies were permitted to resume the production of more than 300 PFAS chemicals that haven’t been used since 2006 without any EPA evaluation.

Some environmentalists say the new rule isn’t stringent enough. The Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s Tracy Carluccio said PFAS shouldn’t even have an opportunity to be reviewed. She argues a complete ban on PFAS chemicals is the only way to protect people.

Carluccio also doesn’t believe the EPA’s review would take the cumulative impact of PFAS exposure into consideration.

“We know these toxic chemicals are directly linked to devastating health conditions and in some cases, cancer. So we can’t afford any more PFAS being considered for use,” Carluccio said. “We cannot tolerate any more PFAS compounds being added to our environment. There’s too many people who have been affected.”

The EPA has proposed restrictions on the amount of PFAS allowable in drinking water.

The agency said it’s also working to evaluate several other types of toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, the chemical that spilled during the 2023 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.